Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, told a joint session of Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court that most other major cities in Texas are facing similar ICU capacity issues, limiting the ability for cooperative solutions among hospitals from various regions.
"At this point, transfer between areas is difficult if not impossible," Walkes said.
Some patients who would normally be admitted to the ICU are currently in emergency rooms waiting for beds, she said.
ICU space would be more flexible, APH said, if not for a persistent staff shortage. That is a change from the last coronavirus surge in January, when APH responded to overcrowding in ICUs by converting the Austin Convention Center into a temporary alternate care site for coronavirus patients.
"We continue to work closely with the hospitals to determine if there is a need for an alternate care site. However, currently, staffing shortages remain the biggest hurdle to overcome for hospitals rather than a space issue as we saw earlier in the year that triggered the [alternate care site] opening," an APH representative told Community Impact Newspaper.
Walkes said APH and local hospital systems are trying to recruit more staff, putting out calls to local retired medical professionals and to health care workers across the country. However, staffing is a nationwide issue, she said, as many nurses, doctors and other health professionals have retired or left the industry over the course of the pandemic.
Gov. Greg Abbott also announced Aug. 9 that the Texas Department of State Health services would work with a staffing agency to provide out-state-personnel to localities struggling with ICU care. He also asked hospitals to voluntarily postpone elective medical procedures and prioritize critical care.
"Our hospital systems are doing an excellent job of adjusting patient volumes and capacities, moving staff from their usual positions to new positions to help load balance," Walkes said. "They're also not performing a lot of elective surgeries. They're performing surgeries that are needed because patients are acutely sick. So they're doing all that they can to make our capacity work for our community."
In the meantime, Walkes implored the Austin community to mask up, get vaccinated and follow other Stage 5 risk-based guidelines. She said almost all of the 191 coronavirus patients currently in Austin-area ICUs are not fully vaccinated.